A previous version of this post was published here.
On February 23, 2008, about 200 volunteers flushed, level by level, every toilet and urinal at newly built Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., to see if the pipes could handle the load.
Imagine a moment when everyone in the world with a smartphone sent each other a smiley face emoji at the same time—not to test the limits of all the networks, just for shits and giggles. Put yourself in the micro-second between everyone hitting send in unison and the possibility that no one would remain on the planet afterwards to respond. Are we not right now suspended between the final fantasy of synchronized global suicide and its fulfillment via technology?
A far more sinister way to end the world would be to realize everyone’s fantasies, a process virtual reality machines have already begun. Realizing every fantasy would destroy the symbolic power of fantasy itself. We’d be left with a literal translation of every metaphor, a logical explanation for every random thought. No more latent content to our dreams—every secret would be dragged out of our minds and streamed “as is” in real time. Before too long, we’d pray to God for nothing less than Nothingness.
For now, we text and carry on—everyone equal before the Law of Communication—forced to send and receive information, most of it useless. Just do it. Just speak.
The most radical message left for us today is to say nothing at all.
Imagine a moment when everyone on the planet with a smartphone refused at the same time to send a text. Or a moment when everyone on the planet flushed a smartphone down a toilet. Dream up a fantasy so spectacular it threatens to end the world and then, for the sake of fantasy, don’t tell a soul.
We approach our tech devices as black boxes, aware simply of their input/output functions. Few of us can comprehend the intricate internal processes of a Galaxy S6 or Kindle Fire HD. Devices just work until we discard them for newer models, like Leonardo DiCaprio does with girlfriends.
But there’s been a seismic shift in the history of subject-object relations. Tech devices now see human beings as intriguing but indecipherable black boxes. They want to crack us open. Murder to dissect our souls. They’re dazzled by our moving parts, anxious to curl up in the palm of our sticky hands. When we turn them on, we turn them on.
As our TVs and tablets, refrigerators and dishwashers, cars and coffeemakers flirt with consciousness, we retreat into sub-consciousness, a sleep mode of existence in which there is no alienation but no freedom either.
For years my iPhone has analyzed and categorized me—for my own good. It feeds me headlines, guides me to unfamiliar places, enhances my dick pics, reminds me to exercise. I dream one day it will hear my confessions and rub my back after a long day at the office. Siri, how do I stitch this hole in the fabric of my being? Instead of talking, I’ll find relief in the texting cure.
Forget the internet of things—we are the (play)things of the internet, bound in wireless chains. The human subject has achieved its final objective: to erase all memory of selfhood in the automatic writing of advanced computer codes.
“God, who was once present, but also absent, from all things, now circulates in the arterial network of computers.”
“Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.”
In 1969, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as, “The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.” It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. I’ve transformed from a writer into an information manager, adept at the skills of replicating, organizing, mirroring, archiving, hoarding, storing, reprinting, bootlegging, plundering, and transferring. (Kenneth Goldsmith; quoted in Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, 2012, p. 166; emphasis added)
Goldsmith is on to something here. He’s the author of The Weather, Sports, and Traffic, a trilogy that as Nealon (p. 165) explains, “consists of straight transcriptions of eleven o’clock news weather reports (a year), a baseball game (every word of a single Yankee game radio broadcast), and traffic reports (a full day of traffic reports, ‘on the 1s’).”
Is this the future of writing? What happens when poetry turns into data manipulation—search engines determining word choice, spreadsheets functioning as figures of speech—the artist transformed into a smooth operator stripped of Goldsmith’s ironic detachment?
People wonder if computers will eventually think like humans. I foresee a world in which humans think like computers. The end of Art signaling the end of Man. Life as intelligence gathering. Love as business transaction. What’s your number? exchanged for What do the numbers say?
The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared, “You could not step twice into the same river.” He was fascinated by change, how nothing stays still. My second step into say, the Des Plaines River, isn’t technically a second step because moments after the first step I am not the same nor is the river.
Martin Irvine, a professor of media studies, has brought this concept into the twenty-first century. “You can’t step into the same flow of information once,” he writes on his website. Today information flows so rapidly, so incessantly and through so many channels that I can’t force even the smallest drop to pause long enough to chart its course.
But there’s more to this. Today I can’t step into separate flows of information because I’m immersed in INFORMATION all the time. I’m drowning in gigabytes. Choking on algorithms. The only stepping is to “step out.” In other words, to die.
One day, I fear, data will subdue us. We will succumb to inputs and outputs. The Cloud will know everything. Especially our secrets. We’ll be laid bare, the world entirely visible. Nothing left to see here, people. Nothing left to see.